Redefining the Leader and Follower Roles to Stop Ace’s Nipping

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 19, 2014

AceAce is a one year old mini Australian Shepherd who has become aggressive toward male guests in the house.

I met Ace’s owners about a block from their home so I could see how he reacted outside of his “territory.” I took the leash and walked him alone for a bit. He walked well for the most part. Was a bit nervous, but didn’t act at all aggressive with me.

I met his owners in front of their home a few minutes later and made sure that Ace was the last one to go through the door. I kept my eye on him to see if there was any change once inside the home. Ace seemed to move cautiously, but showed no signs of aggression.

As we sat down I tossed a few high value treats on the floor in front of me to gauge his comfort level with my presence. The scent of the meat treats caught his attention right away. I tossed out a few more treats with each one falling closer to my position. Once Ace got to the treat about three feet away, he hesitated, then backed away. He walked over and sat leaning against one of his owners who immediately started to pet him. I found out that they had frequently petted the dog when it was anxious, aggressive or unsure in an attempt to comfort and sooth the dog.

While a soothing touch is a relaxing and comforting interaction for humans, dogs relate differently. When you pet a dog in an unbalanced state of mind, you are actually agreeing with the dog’s current state. In this case their owners were saying, “I’m petting you because you are insecure and nervous.”

I suggested that they start to consider attention and affection for their dogs as a payment. By only “paying” a dog when it engages in an action or behavior we want or request, we can help teach the dog what it can do to please us. This is a wonderful way to use positive reinforcement to condition your dog. It also puts the human in a leadership position and the dog into the follower role. Over time, this helps a dog to see the human as being an authority figure.

After spending half an hour observing him, it was clear that Ace was somewhat insecure and had lower self esteem. While he would take a treat from my hand, he would only sit for it at a distance. It took a number of calming signals and positive reinforcement before Ace relaxed enough to come and sit next to me. After suggesting some rules to help Ace see himself as a follower and how to correct him when he broke them, I went through some non verbal forms of communication for the family to use.

While I was demonstrating some of these techniques, Ace darted across the room and gave me a correcting nip on the leg. I had just demonstrated a quick corrective movement which is what likely triggered Ace’s nip. It was not a bite to attack, it was the same move that herding dogs use to control the animals they are shepherding. Still, it showed me that Ace believed it was his place to correct me.  Obviously its an issue when a dog is attempting to correct and control a human that way.

I showed the family a number of exercises to help change the leader follower dynamic between dog and human. Practicing reinforcing commands like the recall on command or the leave it exercise will help the dog practice following commands and corrections from the members of the family. With enough practice, Ace’s self perception will move into the follower role. This is crucial for the dog to understand in order to rehabilitate it from nipping or attempting to heard people in the future.

Because Ace’s reaction to guests at the door was so intense, I had one of the family’s teenage boys go out the back, wait a few moments then ring the doorbell to simulate a guest. As soon as Ace heard the knock he got excited, but it was the doorbell that actually triggered his reaction. As soon as he heard it he started barking and tore across the room to the front door.

I got up and walked over to the door ignoring Ace who was bouncing around and barking his alarm. Once Ace was behind me, I turned to face him and made a sharp hissing sound. Ace paused his barking for a second, but started to walk towards me and the door. I immediately moved forward directly at him in a sudden and elaborate way. This stopped Ace in his tracks. He continued to bark, but moved away any time i stepped forward. I kept my hips pointed at him and then took a deliberate step backwards toward the door. I had instructed the boy to knock and ring the doorbell repeatedly and each time a new noise rang out, Ace would bark and start again towards the door.

I continued to block him from getting on the tile in the entryway by the door, claiming that space as my own. As I did this, Ace’s intensity decreased. After a moment or two he was keeping the distance i wanted on his own and the barking had slowed considerably. Once this was the case, I took a step backwards towards the door while keeping my front pointed at the dog. I paused between each step and corrected or waited for the dog to calm down before stepping towards the door. By the time I answered the door, Ace was keeping out of the entry way and no longer barking.

I had different members of the family practice this technique with one another in preparation for a male friend of the family to be a “real” guest. BY the time he knocked they had somewhat desensitized Ace to the stimulation of the doorbell and knocking. He still barked and attempted to get to the door, but his owners consistently corrected him and were able to allow the friend to enter without any nips. Ace kept his distance as we invited the friend in. I had him avoid eye contact and move in a slow and deliberate way.

Over the course of the next hour, I worked with Ace, getting him to calm down and relax with leash work, body positioning and an assertive energy. I was eventually able to get him to lay in front of the neighbor in a calm manner and even take treats out of his hand. While he was far more relaxed, he was not completely calm. He attempted to nip the friend twice which gave me the opportunity to show them how to correct and disagree while also showing them some of the warning signs to watch for. Often humans miss many of a dog’s non verbal communication warning. Its easy to do as they can sometimes happen so fast. But once you know what to look for, it gives you the ability to correct the dog at the first step. This is much easier and far more effective than attempting to correct a dog when its ready to nip or bite.

As a higher energy dog, I strongly suggested that the family get him a 30 – 45 minute walk every day. Burning excess energy in a constructive way will l go a long way toward helping Ace control himself. Practice at the leadership exercises will give Ace some confidence as he masters them. Only providing affection and attention when the dog engages in an action they want will help Ace see and respect the authority of his owners. It will take a combined effort, practice, consistent correction and enforcement of the new rules and boundaries to change Ace’s authority perception changes into a follower role. Once this is the case, his owners will be able to disagree with any attempts to nip or heard humans until the attempts stop completely.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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